Ritsaert Ten Cate: A Memorial
“The reproductions are ubiquitous. A real sunset is infinitely more difficult to experience, even when it blazes before us.

Death can be really cruel: last week it robbed us of the comic, anarchic life-force that was Ken Campbell and then swiftly tore the unique, reassuring and incandescent presence of Ritsaert ten Cate from the face of the earth.

It is awful to realise that death is so ordinary, that it happens all the time and takes the extraordinary away as swiftly as the more mundane among us. And make no mistake, there was nothing ordinary about the Dutchman Ritsaert ten Cate. He stalked the performance world benignly, a serene benefactor and inspiration. Currently posted on his website is his ultimate confidence in us that we would know what to do when he died. I know I have to remember and pay homage to such a sagacious soul. 

I didn’t know much about Ritsaert when I first met him back in 1986. I was then representing the extraordinary Catalan performance artist Alberto Vidal. I had publicised his show in the London International Festival of Theatre in 1985. The work was called Urban Man and Vidal was a human exhibit in an open enclosure in London Zoo. It was a huge success and I recall the story hitting every front page.

Alberto and I forged a friendship which saw him retaining my services for all his new work. He persuaded the Spanish cultural grandees to invite me to deliver a speech at the Murcia Festival the following year. The basic argument posited in my speech was that contemporary performance folk had to respect and not fear the promotion process. I suggested that performers should treat the news pages as a canvas and should act and think like global brands. The audience was skeptical, but one man that I did reach and who stayed behind to talk further was Ritsaert.

At a time when few understood what I was trying to preach, Ritsaert got it in one. He embraced me, and he embraced my ideas. We had a fabulous time together plotting and planning on how I might refine my PR philosophy to make it more palatable. 

Ritsaert then invited me to a gathering of computer hackers in Rotterdam. It was there that we really started to exchange ideas and views on how we might achieve some change. This was the beginning of an amazing friendship. He was a colossus and has been an inspiration to me for decades. He was a polymath – actor, artist, producer, philosopher – who achieved worldwide fame with his unconventional creation, the Mickery Theatre.

The legendary venue was a powerhouse for experimental theatre and an important venue for performance art of the 70s. Among the groups that were featured were the likes of The People Show, Mike Figgis’ first show Redheugh,  Jan Fabre, La Mamma, The Wooster Group, Pip Simmons and Robert Wilson. Ritsaert was one of the first to create theatre beyond television.

The energy that went into the Mikery took its toll, as Ritsaert was constantly frustrated by the philistine tinkering of politicians. It’s difficult for dumb-asses to appreciate the impact of his work. He started to try to see if he could find a key to a more public expression for the need for art in society. He began asking difficult questions. “Do we want that, and if so, why?”  He understood it all came down to money. He argued that if institutions could get one percent of the government’s cultural budget, then we would be finished with accountants. This would stop the endless discussions about quality, when really what they were trying to do was spend less and less money. This subject is still topical today.

Incidentallly, on similar theme, Ken Campbell wrote an article in Time Out suggesting that The Arts Council should suspend all subsidy for a year. He believed that this would allow performers and rtists to gauge their true value and “worth”.

Ritsaert’s radical actions and visions saw the creation of an extraordinary happening in which he made me participate. The event’s seductive premise was simple: “We wish to create a meeting of visionary people.  It should be a conference so that we may offer this meeting of minds to our colleagues, to students, and artists… to anyone who might be interested.  The theme of this meeting will be The Academy of the 21st Century.”

It was staged in Groningen and ignited a spark that was to produce another vein of obtuse creativity and mischief in me, thanks to his vision. I adored the way he influenced this event, and I marvelled at the way it brought the discussion about funding into the open. It attracted huge media interest, working from the premise “that nobody can speak intelligently of the future if they don’t understand the present”. It was an event with a dual purpose and at the heart was a huge publicity action.

“We have a major line up of speakers, and three days stuffed with controversial ideas, challenging experience, hard and painfully earned knowledge of aspects of this world we might not be very aware of ourselves. All of this intended to add to visions of the existence of an academy of the future.”

This event resulted in the instigation of DasArts in 1994, founded by Ritsaert. He remained as director until the summer of 2000. During that time, he became a beloved teacher and mentor to many young artists and other professionals in the Netherlands and abroad. Amsterdam’s inter-disciplinary workshop for theatre, dance and mime was legendary.

DasArts did not have a fixed curriculum. Each semester one or two mentors would curate a so-called block, or programme, centered around one theme to be explored in depth by the participants. The mentor, a prominent artist or group of artists, worked at DasArts for a period of four months, shaping the theme of the block and selecting guest lecturers in consultation with the artistic staff of DasArts. Each block is unique and relates art practice to current developments in society. At the end of the fourth semester the public presentation of the Final Project would take place in a theatre or other art venue, which would conclude the studies.

When Ritsaert was there it was brilliant. He persuaded me to mentor a singular artist called Duro Toomato, someone perhaps he had given up on, but still felt had something amazing to offer. Duro, a Croatian, had been a street performer who was more famous for being arrested in most European cities for his wild antics. Ritsaert intuitively knew I could help Duro finish his work.  I did help Duro - he made a one minute long feature film about a camel’s bollocks.  We are now friends and are still searching for the ultimate adventure.

A few years ago, Ritsaert went back to basics to return to working as a contemporary artist, still trying to fuck things up. His Touch Time Gallery was full of his autonomous art and installations.  It’s ironic that after his death there will without doubt be a major retrospective; something that, if it happens, would have made him laugh out loud. 

Ritsaert had an open mind and more importantly a huge, open heart. Maybe that was because he was forged by different stuff, a collective of particles so astonishing, indecipherable and precious that they would only brush a chosen few souls. Time and authority tried to weather and erode him and although his  countenance bore signs of strain, this was a deliberate camouflage used to confuse and confound.

Some thought Ritsaert’s face was like melted wax and yet his smile would burst out in a beaming radiance. He always seemed at peace; maybe that was because of the triumph of his principles. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “as we grow old…the beauty steals inward.” That certainly was the case with Ritsaert. There was nothing arrogant about him, he had an impossible dignity that bordered on the blessed which touched something inside anyone who came close to him. I know all humans were drawn to his understanding of creative “things”. We all knew somehow that Riseart had found a sightline beyond our own. A crazy obtuse angle that was the exceptional perspective.

There is an instinctive, selfish reaction to the death of people like Ritsaert; something perishes inside us and we need it back. I feel cheated that he is no longer around - the surety that he will always be there has gone. I know the shattered fragments of Ritsaert litter the cosmos, specks lost in time and space. My hope is that they will regenerate now that the the Large Hadron Collider has started up.

Before he died, Ritsaert used YouTube to say something quite wonderful to the world – watch it here and you’ll begin to understand the joy of the man.

“It has all happened before. Everyone and no one has been here before, and no matter how obscure it may seem to you, ” the universe is… unfolding as it should,” or more precisely, as it cannot help but do.”

Mark Borkowski on Borkowski Blog
10 september 2008


Mark Borkowski